Impossible Force (Kite)

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Director’s Cut material aside, Yasuomi Umetsu’s KITE is an action movie through and through (and through). Young assassin, Sawa, carries out various hits interspersed between scenes with plot points advancing her revenge tale. There are gallons of blood, lots of screaming, disembodied body parts galore, excessive explosions, and some pretty swell fight choreography too. But amidst all the adrenaline is one scene with action so impossible that, intentionally or otherwise, it elicits laughs and deserves a standing OVAtion.

To set the scene: a massive explosion, one which punches a hole through the wall high up in a skyscraper, appears to clear all remaining unfriendlies from the cramped bathroom in which Sawa was fighting. As Sawa stares down at the streets below, she’s grabbed from behind by one last standing foe who then forces her off the building. They fall.

The scene:
Sawa latches onto a hefty, protruding sign. It gives way. She and the gunman clinging to her leg fall (again). During their descent, Sawa manages to crouch on top of the man and braces for inevitable impact. The pair hit the top of an enclosed bridge between buildings. They fall through, crushing the roof of a traffic-mired automobile. The force from the fall, along with the weight of Sawa, the gunman, and the upper bridge piece, makes the car fall through the asphalt and bridge base, all of which puts a serious dent in the gridlocked tanker truck directly below and makes Sawa’s momentum crush the gunman’s innards; blood and teeth erupt like a slow volcano. There's a slight pause hosting the ominous sound of cracking asphault. Then the truck starts to sink and falls through the street (and numerous layers of solid Earth) into the subway below. The concerning silence is anticlimactic; Sawa’s shown safely clinging to the side of the hole made by the tanker. Then the sign, a huge arrow pointing straight down, falls through the hole (narrowly missing Sawa) and ignites the tanker below. Sawa’s blown out and up and across the street into a building through a storefront window and onto a show bed.

Wile E. Coyote’s constant canyon falls were amusing because the character was out of sight—a speck of dust riding a slide whistle all the way down. Good ol’ Wile E. was abstracted. The cloud of smoke let viewers know when the fall stopped, and then the coyote reappeared in bandages that disappeared in the next scene. Comedy.

Homer Simpson’s infamous gorge jump in “Bart the Daredevil” is a direct and gruesome Wile E. parody. During his descent, Homer hits every extended crag and branch on his way down and gets bloodier and more tattered the further he falls. It hurts, but the scene’s comedic for using realism as a sort of hyper-aware commentary on the pain at which we laugh so lightly.

Blending aspects of both of the above scenarios, KITE takes an absurdly realistic-looking fall and endows it with a physics-defying momentum that presses the tickle button every time un-believability is compounded. Simultaneously, the progressively bloodying bad guy embeds a bit of realism and empathy. The down arrow sign falling straight through the hole and igniting everything is the punchline, the big cartoon laugh, and Sawa’s flight through the air and bed-cushioned landing are the disappearing bandages.


Kite is currently streaming on Netflix and available for purchase on RightStuf and Amazon.

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Staff Picks: Our Favorite Anime of 2014

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Welcome to our third and final Staff Picks post for 2014! After listing our favorite games and manga, as selected by our staff contributors and guest writers, we're bringing it home with our main focus here at Ani-Gamers: anime. First off, we'll list off our collective Top 3 anime from 2014, then list our individual favorites for each writer.

– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief


 

Ani-Gamers Anime of the Year

#3: Ping Pong: The Animation

Ink: As if the personal drama in this sports anime isn’t enough of a draw, add powerful visual storytelling under the direction of Masaaki Yuasa, visual development/background art by Kevin Aymeric, and one of the most amazing punk-infused OPs ever and you have a tour de force of fun with some of the ugliest beautiful you’ll ever have the pleasure of watching week to week or in a quick five-some-hour marathon. Ping Pong: The Animation adapts the seinen manga by Taiyo Matsumoto. Although I’ve never read it or seen the touted live-action adaptation, what makes the anime so special is that it can break all the rules by combining aspects of all mediums. The camera angles alone, in both their mimicry of live action and unbound capability therein, make the series worth watching, while the realistic and surrealistic depictions of very human characters as they lose and find themselves via the sport of table tennis ensure rapt attention. I don’t remember many week-to-week or episode-to-episode cliffhangers, but every episode was thoroughly engrossing thanks to the way the animation complemented the times and trials of the cast.

 

#2: Space Brothers

Jared Nelson: In this year full of fantastic shows, one stood out for me above all others: Space Brothers, based on Chuuya Koyama’s award winning astronaut manga. I have never watched a show where I cared more about the characters in it (not even Chihayafuru, y’all). To be fair, its a show that started in 2012 (and was even nominated by Ink in that year). And yes, Space Brothers had 87 episodes to build up its world, plotlines, and characters, but in its final cour this show gave us something different and it was more emotionally evocative than anything else I watched last year.

Stories about people struggling to achieve their dreams appear often in anime. Most of the time, heroes become legends, or find their one true love, or score the game winning shot. And for most of its run, Space Brothers was no different. But in its final cour, Space Brothers becomes a story of people desperately trying to hold on to the reality of their achieved dreams, and that isn’t something you get from most anime. For that reason, and for memorable characters you can’t help but cheer for, Space Brothers is my top show of 2014.

 

#1: Kill la Kill

Evan Minto: As it was still running at the end of the year, I deliberately left Kill la Kill out of last year's Staff Picks. My two picks from last year (Inferno Cop and Little Witch Academia), however, were the closest substitutes, as they also happened to be the first two projects from anime studio Trigger, creators of Kill la Kill. So, at long last, let’s give Trigger its due for Kill la Kill too.

From its first moments, the show hits like a jolt of animated electricity. Our hero, Ryuko, is a tough-as-nails transfer student on the hunt for the woman who killed her father, and Satsuki, the totalitarian student council president at Honnouji Academy, is her only lead. The clash between these two headstrong young women, which weaves in superpowered school uniforms, nudist secret societies, and sewing machine guns, ends up being a really great show through a bizarre concoction of self-aware anime stereotypes and a scratchy, in-your-face visual style. The nudity may scare you away (and, indeed, it’s likely motivated by typical otaku fetishism despite its accidental potential for feminist readings), but give it a shot and you’ll quickly be swept up in its escalating series of high-flying battles and jaw-dropping plot twists. Kill la Kill is pure, unapologetic entertainment, and it is our collective Anime of the Year as well as my personal #1 choice.

DISCLAIMER: I work for Crunchyroll as a software developer, but my positive opinion of Kill la Kill (which is streaming on Crunchyroll) expressed here is my own — it does not represent, nor was it prompted in any way by, my employer.


 

Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto

#3: Ping Pong: The Animation

[See writeup above]

 

#2: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli movies often leave me with a giant smile on my face, but not since Isao Takahata's tragic WWII masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies have I left a screening of a Ghibli film as overpowered as I did after The Tale of Princess Kaguya (also directed by Takahata). A seemingly simple adaptation of a classic Japanese folk tale, the movie follows the life of a girl born from a bamboo shoot and raised by a humble bamboo cutter. As our heroine goes from country girl to princess, we watch conflicts between her desires and the expectations heaped upon her due to her station as depicted through both charming Ghibli hijinks and surreal dreamscapes. All of this comes to a head in a climax that avoids an obvious chance for tragedy in favor of overwhelming, painfully sincere emotion on the part of its characters. Princess Kaguya reaches for a far more stirring, spiritual experience than most anime (including those in the Ghibli catalog), making the closest comparison Osamu Tezuka's eight-volume manga epic Buddha. The whole thing is also rendered in a breathtaking, painterly animation style reminiscent of traditional Japanese artwork, something we rarely see in anime. I'll give it some time before I make any declarations, but Kaguya may end up being one of my favorite Ghibli films of all time.

 

#1: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]


 

Ink

#3: Space Dandy (Season 2)

When Space Dandy was announced at Otakon and members of the "press" got further insight via a jam session with Watanabe, I immediatley envisioned a Samurai Jack-type scnerio. Season 1 of Space Dandy was true to its premise — different animation directors handing individual episodes or alien/world designs — but, for me, fell short on the original promise. Every episode seemed to follow the map too closely. There was still enough variation to make for grand entertainment, but nothing that struck me as truly exceptional. Then Season 2 premiered (and continued), and my socks were blown off. The pinnacle had been reached. The episodes varied so widely in execution, focus, and animation styles that I never knew what was coming next, which is everything I ever wanted out of Space Dandy

[Read more in Charles's full season writeup below]

 

#2: Space Brothers

[See writeup above]

 

#1: Ping Pong: The Animation

[See writeup above]


 

Charles Dunbar

#3: Knights of Sidonia

Giant robots used to be my thing. Gundam, Mekton Zeta, Xenogears? Yup, give me more. And then one day these shows stopped meaning something to me. How many times can I watch the same battle sequences, the “arms race” to build the biggest, baddest metal man in the galaxy, or watch plots unfold like a cartoon soap opera? 

Knights of Sidonia slips nicely between the mecha tropes I’m used to, and the general sense of exploration and “dread” that I want from my SF shows. And yet, I still can’t figure out exactly why I liked this show so much. It hooked me somewhere in the third episode, and refused to let me stop watching until everything was done. It had the obligatory battles, the flashy speed of space combat that felt like a full-mechanical Attack on Titan, but there was a heart there as well, an emotional connection rooted in the exposition and character interactions, that tugged at me. I felt bad when characters died. I pulled for relationships that were cut short too soon. Much like Gundam Seed, there is a sense of real loss in Sidonia — recalling an influence from Battlestar Galactica, we stand together, and fall as one.

 

#2: Space Dandy

So what’s the good word about this dandy guy? Why should anyone be so interested in what looks and feels like an anime reboot of “Homeboys in Outer Space?” Especially with so much competition this year from so many other, quality series? Is it the space part? Did they forget to mention the space part? So much wonder...

But truthfully, Space Dandy is a fantastic exercise in anime for the sake of anime. No need for deep plots (even if the show tried at some point to insert them late-season), since a heavy reliance of irreverence, and the quirks of the aforementioned Dandy Guy (in SPACE, did we mention?) carry the show from implausible situation to impossible outcome. It conjures an essence of speculation and discovery that the SF genre used to possess, before giant robots and climatic battles became the new normal. The show manages to build on the same energy as Cowboy Bebop, but infuses enough ridiculous situations and culture references to hearken back to an early era of South Park or Family Guy ... and ends before its welcome is worn out. Space Dandy is a creature of his own era, and that era is wacky, fun, ridiculous, and satisfying because it is all those things. Dandy indeed. 

 

#1: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]


 

Jared Nelson

#3: Gundam Unicorn

2014 was in many ways a Gundam renaissance with the very successful Build Fighters show and its sequel, as well as Vertical’s release of the outstanding Gundam: The Origin manga. But the standard bearer for Gundam in 2014 was Gundam Unicorn, a showcase of beautiful animation and an exemplar of the hopeful spirit that underpins the Gundam mythos. Unicorn was sort of a dream come true for longtime Universal Century fans because it felt like watching a Gundam show from the '80s (right down to the awesome throwback character designs) but with modern, high definition animation.

The final episode of Gundam Unicorn has a valedictory tone and it could be an excellent ending to the original Universal Century storyline if ever Tomino retcons the mythos (again). If you’ve never seen Gundam and want to watch something that serves as a representative work for the franchise, you could do far worse than Unicorn. If you’re a long time fan of Gundam, Unicorn is an excellent reminder of how great Gundam can be when done right.

 

#2: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]

 

#1: Space Brothers

[See writeup above]


 

Katriel Page

#2: Inari Konkon Koi Iroha

Truth be told, this was one of my favorite series in 2014, and slipped under many peoples' radars: it was simulcasting in the Spring season via Funimation, which was where I found it.

Inari Konkon Koi Iroha (shortened to just Inari Konkon) is a tale about a lonely goddess, the goddess Uka-no-mitama also known as Inari by mortals, who rewards an insecure girl named Fushimi Inari with the ability to transform into any other human. This in effect grants Inari-the-girl with some of Inari-the-goddess' power, and their lives start intertwining in ways that could not be expected: from Inari-the-goddess wanting to find out more about human lives and hobbies, to Inari-the-girl's relationships with her friends, crushes, and even other gods.

It's not on the same tense level as Attack on Titan or Kill la Kill, but helps provide a breather between such tense and action-packed shows. It's soft and warm like a blanket, only animated, and if you are watching it for the first time, an excellent series to watch during the winter with a cup of hot cocoa by your side.

 

#1: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]


 

And there you have it! The best stuff of 2014 in all three categories we cover. We hope you enjoyed reading our writeups in the past couple days. If you'd like to chime in with your own picks or your feedback for our writers, leave us a comment on any of the three posts. Thanks for reading!

More Staff Picks: Manga Staff Picks 2014Video Game Staff Picks 2014

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Staff Picks: Our Favorite Manga of 2014

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We're back with more Staff Picks, our list of the best stuff of 2014 as selected by our contributors and guest writers. Two days ago we tackled video games. This time we're taking a look at manga, and we actually have enough consensus to select two overall Manga of the Year picks. As usual, we've got our thoughts for each title below. Enjoy!

– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief


 

Ani-Gamers Manga of the Year

#2: Showa: A History of Japan

Charles Dunbar: 2014 will go down as the year I read a whole lot of “textbooks.” Mostly related to Japanese identity and culture, reactions to world politics, and the postwar period. So who would have expected the best of the lot to be a manga? Okay, given that it was written by one of the best manga-ka ever to walk the earth, maybe some folks. But when I started in on Showa: A History of Japan (Showa-Shi in Japanese), I had only a bit of an inkling of what I would encounter, and devour.

Japanese history books tend to either treat the war as a “mistake” (apologizing and glossing over some of the atrocities committed by Japan) or as a valiant effort showcasing the honor of the soldiers on both sides (and just outright ignoring them). And more frequently, they seem to fix the war as a single entity, removed from time and social situations. Showa-shi does none of this. Told partially as autobiography (with copious notes for the serious buff), the series breaks down the war on the home front, how the Showa period evolved, the difficulties of being Japanese at the time, the shortcomings of the people and government, and how the war was just one piece of an already complicated Japanese era defined by loss, devastation, and eventual recovery. And it does it frankly, fairly, and evenly — a rare achievement, especially for a Japanese book by a Japanese author. Mizuki Shigeru having lived through the era, lost a great deal to the era, and eventually became one of the leading voices after it was said and done, gives him insight, but also credence, to speak on these times and make sure the story remains told. Showa-shi tells that story on two fronts: the upheaval on the nation, and the ripples jarring the life of one boy who experienced it. It’s manga like you’ve never read before.

 

#1: The Flowers of Evil

Ink: This is one of the few manga I began reading before its anime adaptation appeared. As soon as I saw that the manga took its title from the symbolist work Les Flures du Mal, I decided on reading at least the first volume. And even though this shonen title by Shuzo Oshimi didn’t have a lick of poetry from its namesake book within that first volume, I found myself engrossed by its uncomfortably open account of awkwardness portraying the peak of pubescence. It’s a quick and easy read despite the masterfully layered storytelling. This is owed, in large part, to Oshimi’s frighteningly precise use of visuals which immediately evoke an extremely tense tone via setting. Like moods that waver, the imagery intermittently gets more daring and abstract in later volumes without detracting one iota from the very concrete world that exists within the pages. Similarly, the use of space and rendering of emotional reaction via subtle facial expressions make each volume poppable candy while letting the all of the content slide effortlessly into readers’ brains. So despite the quick pacing, nothing feels amiss. And if you’re wondering if its 11 volumes are worth finishing, let me just say this.


 

Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto

#2: A Silent Voice

When Crunchyroll launched their Manga service last year, A Silent Voice — not Attack on Titan or Fairy Tail (also on the service) — was the talk of the town. The manga's subject is highly atypical, but its take on emotional insecurity and the growing pains of adolescence is spot-on. A deaf girl named Shouko transfers into Shouya's middle school class, and before long he and his friends have started a merciless bullying campaign against the poor girl. But soon the class turns on Shouya and bullies him too. Years later, in high school, his life is hell, and as depression takes hold, he reconnects with Shouko and tries to make up for lost time. Nothing goes quite as planned, however, and over the course of 7 volumes, the characters (including former and current classmates) wrestle with loneliness, guilt, and even suicide on their quest to transform their shared tragedy into something meaningful. The goings-on occasionally border on the melodramatic, but by the end, A Silent Voice proves to be a surprisingly rich experience filled with young men and women from all walks of life struggling in different ways to find a place for themselves.

DISCLAIMER: I work for Crunchyroll as a software developer, but my positive opinion of A Silent Voice expressed here is my own — it does not represent, nor was it prompted in any way by, my employer.

 

#1: OPUS

You would think I could say “Satoshi Kon made it, therefore it’s my Manga of the Year,” but the previous posthumous release from the late manga artist-turned-anime director, Tropic of the Sea, didn't impress me all that much. OPUS shows us a far more well-developed side of Kon, which is ironic, since it’s actually unfinished! Manga artist Chikara Nagai is struggling to finish his sci-fi action title Resonance when he suddenly finds himself inside the world he created. As his own characters become aware of his status as their creator, things get weirder and weirder, with heroes literally running off the page and a villain seeking to challenge the creator’s level of control over the world. Like most Kon works, this one treads the line between fiction and reality, but focuses much more on the roles and responsibilities of creators. Despite all the grief over Kon’s unfinished final film, The Dreaming Machine, I may be more disappointed about OPUS, which remained unfinished throughout a decade of his anime work. Here is an early Kon already wrestling with complex issues of authorship and the nature of reality. Oh well, half a masterpiece is still better than most other manga out there.


 

Ink

#3: Higurashi no Naku Koro ni

The endless June of 1983 is finally over! Watching the anime in no way spoiled the reading of this title. If I’d “played” the original visual novels, I doubt doing so would’ve kept me from eagerly flipping each printed page. Normally I’ve a problem with reading manga in that I never stop to smell the roses blooming in every panel of the page, but my experience with this title was different. The panel framing was engrossing, the portrayal of the characters fully evoked every necessary bit of their duality exactly how and when it was called for, and the use of different artists on specific story arcs, for better or worse, kept things visually interesting strictly through slight interpretive and stylistic differences. In and of itself, Higurashi is a screw-with-your-mind page-turner. (The Cotton Drifting Chapter and corresponding Eye Opening Chapter always manage to trip me up.) The power of the manga, compared to the other mediums, can be likened to reading a really good ghost story by candlelight on a chilly night while wrapped up in a white knuckle-gripped blanket.

 

#2: Mysterious Girlfriend X

Ridiculous is the perfect adjective for this seinen manga by Riichi Ueshiba. It’s ridiculously inventive and ridiculously tender despite being ridiculously frustrating and ridiculously repetitive. No matter how odd/gross/disturbing the concept (emotional and visual telepathy via drool ingestion between destined lovers) is, the story is one steeped in nostalgia for falling in love as a teenager and being in a developing relationship. While I think my review of the last volume says it all regarding the pros and cons of this manga, I don’t think I ever really spelled out who this title targets. Simply put: the romantics. Sure the notion of swapping spit sans liplock may be beyond the stomachs of most, but watching the main characters get to know each other and legitimately grow with one another as they try to understand their respective inner workings is more than a nostalgia trip to times of simpler puppy love. It’s an apology to all past loves for all the screw-ups along the way and a love letter detailing how we wish things could’ve been.

 

#1: The Flowers of Evil

[See writeup above]


 

Charles Dunbar

#1: Showa-Shi

[See writeup above]


 

Jared Nelson

#3: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches

One of Crunchyroll Manga’s launch titles from 2013, Miki Yoshikawa’s Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches has gone on to be my favorite comedic manga in 2014. Ryu Yamada, high school slacker with a fearsome reputation, trips and falls down a flight of stairs, landing on ace student and school idol Urara Shiraishi. He wakes up later to find they’ve swapped bodies! Magic-fueled hijinks ensue. Add in a supernatural studies club in search of answers, student body council that runs the school, and six other witches with powers of their own and you get a sense of the craziness that is this manga.

I usually find myself getting bored with comedic manga because they tend to repeat similar gags or storylines over time, but not only does the cast of Yamada-kun grow and continue to stay fresh, but there’s real character development as the storyline evolves. Yoshikawa’s talent for combining dialogue and art to hilarious effect makes all that possible, and I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes things in the coming year.

 

#2: Vinland Saga

Vinland Saga, by the celebrated Makoto Yukimura, follows the journey of Thorfinn, son of Thors across the battlefields of pre-Norman England as he seeks to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of Askeladd, a vicious and cunning mercenary captain. Thorfinn spends a decade as Askeladd’s captive and sort of protege, eventually becoming a fearsome warrior in his own right. At its heart, Vinland Saga is a story of fathers and sons, war and peace, life and death, and brutality and redemption.

Yukimura doesn’t sanitize the Viking age in this work. The world of Vinland Saga is bloody, savage, and gruesomely immersive. His attention to detail drew me in until I could smell wood smoke and hear battle cries on the air. Each volume of Vinland Saga is published in hefty hardbound format, but I frequently couldn’t pull myself away until I finished it in one sitting. If you’re looking for a historical manga to join your collection, Vinland Saga is an excellent choice.

#1: The Flowers of Evil

[See writeup above]


 

Katriel Page

#3: From the New World

Shin Sekai Yori, published by Vertical Inc. under the title From The New World, is a science-fiction (and arguably, horror) manga that seems to initially mislead you: the covers are bright, cheerful, and promises plenty of fan service. The covers lie. I devoured the first four volumes back in June, and immediately wanted to know when Vertical was releasing the rest!

This manga is not so much about “the world” around the characters as the characters' relationships between each other, and volumes 3-6 — encompassing the remainder of the series — hammer this home. The setup between the Mole Rats and the humans who can use magic, the line between who are regarded as “monsters” and “saviors,” really pays off, and hits hard with suspense and terror. While the plotline may be somewhat predictable, there is a reason why the original Japanese novel won the 29th Nihon SF Taisho Award (a prestigious science fiction award similar to the Nebulas) and you see that reason in the concluding volumes. While there is some fan service, it only serves to drive home a particular plot point: how can you even trust your own thoughts and feelings? Who are we, really?

 

#2: Jobs

Unfortunately, this manga does not have an English release: simply because the “English release” would be Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs!  In Japan though, the biography was released in two volumes, and the publishers arranged for a manga version for easy reading as well. This illustrates that manga is more of a medium than a genre: here, we have the story of Steve Jobs' life, illustrated in image and dialogue by Mari Yamazaki, the same artist who you might know from works like Thermae Romae.

Volume 2 of the manga begins in the 1970s when Steve Jobs was trying to find himself by traveling, meditating, and going to ashrams: this quickly segues into the Homebrew Computer Club, the establishing of Apple Computer as a company, and the birth of Apple I and Apple II. Of all the as-yet-released volumes to pick up, this may be the volume that resonates with computer history the most: but it seems that this biographical manga will continue on with the story of “the man who changed the world” until it's done, in a fitting worldwide tribute to someone who changed how people used computers.

 

#1: Showa: A History of Japan

[See writeup above]


 

Another category bites the dust! Just one left, and it's a big one: anime. That should be up later today. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, go check out our thoughts on the best video games of 2014.

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Staff Picks: Our Favorite Video Games of 2014

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As usual, the Ani-Gamers team isn't quite punctual enough to get our end-of-year posts out by the end of the year, but just because 2014 is over doesn't mean we can't celebrate some of the great titles that came out last year! This year we're switching up the format of our loose "Staff Picks" posts to give them a bit more structure.

Here's how it works: I asked our staff writers and some of the guests who have contributed pieces this year to list their top 1-3 titles in each of three categories: anime, manga, and video games. We tallied the votes in each, and if there were clear winners, we created a collective Top 3. Whether or not a collective choice emerged, though, we had everybody write up their thoughts on all the staff picks.

We'll be lumping those writeups together by category in the next few days, starting with this video games post. Since we had very little agreement on our favorite video games this year, nothing emerged as a clear winner, so if you're looking for our Game of the Year, well ... we don't have one. What we do have is a number of exceptional titles, including perennial franchises, massively popular multiplayer games, and educational experiments. Enjoy!

– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief


 

Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto

#2: Nidhogg

I actually never bought Nidhogg, but a few nights at SF Game Night (a video game event at a local San Francisco bar) were enough for me to fall in love with it. The game is simple: two monochromatic, pixelated fencers face off, each attempting to reach the goal on the opposite side of their opponent. The twist is that only one player can be on the offensive at a time, which means one must hunt the other down and kill them before they can start their own side-scrolling mad dash toward the goal. Tight, twitchy controls and creative map design (with doors, tall grass to hide in, and more) make the experience surprisingly rich, and invite lots of rowdy matches, especially when players are so closely matched that each one continually snatches victory away from the other. I was so impressed by Nidhogg's ability to create a competitive atmosphere among people watching it (let alone playing it) that I wrote a whole column about it!

 

#1: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U

Sure, it's probably an indicator that I didn't play enough games in 2014 that Smash Bros. gets my top spot, but let's give credit where credit is due. The fourth iteration of Super Smash Bros., released on 3DS and Wii U* this year, is ridiculously fun. Not only is there the usual roster of new characters (including my new favorite, Duck Hunt), but the games also introduce a number of new wrinkles to the formula. The ability to create Mii Fighters and custom movesets means I can create the entire Earthbound party and have them fight each other, which is possibly the only thing you need to get my Game of the Year spot. Wi-Fi play between 3DS's means I can start up a game of Smash Bros. anywhere, and support for up to eight players broadens the game's appeal as a true party game. Sure, there have been connectivity issues with both local and internet wireless play, and the custom movesets barely get used, but if the past few months have been any indication, my friends and I will be playing a lot of Smash in 2015 and beyond.

*OK, I'm kind of cheating by giving the spot to BOTH games, but I love them both and they're so closely related it's tough to rank them separately. 


 

Charles Dunbar

#1: Persona Q

While I spent most of 2014 screaming at the masses about how awesome Kill la Kill was, that series actually had to share my “fandom spotlight” with an already established franchise I have a deep-seated love for: Persona. I’ve played the latter two installments multiple times, attempted a tackling of the second one, and defused cerebral battles between my two “waifuz”, P4’s Chie and KLK’s Satsuki. 

Like the games that spawned it, Persona Q is part dungeon crawler, part school simulation. But in this case the dungeons are longer, harder, and require far more planning, thanks in part to Atlus’ use of its already brutal (and popular) Etrian Odyssey engine. Stat balancing and careful monitoring of enemies movements are required this time around, as blazing through the carefully designed labyrinth stages can result in one slaughtered party. Each one of them is also its own, self-contained environment, from the airy Group Date Cafe to the creepy Evil Spirits Club. Creatively, Persona Q shows the series at its best. 

But the real joy of Persona Q is that it’s canon fanservice, plain and simple. By blending the already popular characters of Personas 3 and 4 in the same “room,” it acknowledges the fandom's need for “shipping” and throws them multiple bones as the stories move on. Interactions between the blended parties answer a lot of “what-ifs” the fans have, and lead to plenty of humorous interactions over the course of the 90 hours of gameplay. Mysteries might be revealed here, but its the fact that Atlus was willing to go along with its rabid fanbase that really stands out.


 

Jared Nelson

#3: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

WoW is a 10-year-old game but you wouldn’t know it from its latest expansion, "Warlords of Draenor." This expansion has you revisit an alternate timeline 30 years in the past, around the time of the first Warcraft RTS game. WoW’s graphical overhaul, primarily in the form of updated character models, gives it the look of a new MMO despite its age. I have to admit, when I saw my Paladin’s new model after returning to the game, I was hit by a sudden and acute burst of nostalgia for the game’s glory days.

With Warlords, Blizzard has finally succeeded in creating a single-player experience that’s every bit as rich as a standalone RPG. You really do feel like the main character in the story as you level through the questing storyline. The addition of the Garrison feature to the game lends it a bit of that old school Warcraft feel that so many of us cut our teeth on and keeps you coming back after the main questline has been completed.

 

#2: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Collectible card games (CCG's) are legion in the online space, but Hearthstone’s pedigree sets it head and shoulders above the rest, including Magic’s own Duels of the Planeswalkers. Like other Blizzard games, Hearthstone’s gameplay is easy to learn and fast (unless two warrior decks are going at it, in which case get comfortable). Being an online CCG, there’s never a “banned” list of cards since the developers can hotfix cards on the fly when balance issues present themselves. And while that’s not exactly revolutionary, for a former tabletop card gamer like myself, it makes me feel like I’m never going to have wasted money on cards I can never play (*cough* chaos orb).

Hearthstone sets itself even further apart from the pack by not only drawing on the lore of World Of Warcraft, but even feeling a bit like that game. In its first year, the game has released an “Adventure Mode” that mimics WoW’s Naxxrammas raid, as well as its first full expansion, Goblins and Gnomes, which added a heavily random element to the game, thereby making it even more distinct from other traditional and online CCGs.

 

#1: Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC)

Dragon Age: Inquisition marks a return to form for Bioware after a disappointing sophomore effort with Dragon Age II. Inquisition not only demonstrates that Bioware has learned from their own mistakes, but also from the success of their rivals. DAI is easily the most open-world fantasy game I’ve played since Skyrim, yet it still has the deep and immersive storytelling that Bioware became known for with hits like the Baldur’s Gate and the Mass Effect series. The gameplay feels quite a bit like Dragon Age II, with the ability point system being almost identical. An updated top-down tactical camera makes a welcome return for players who enjoyed that view, though I found myself using it much less than I did in Dragon Age: Origins.

And of course, there are the romances. With Inquisition, Bioware has attempted to set a new standard for inclusiveness in games; the range of in-game romance options available provide more choices for players interested in pursuing LGBT relationships. With all of the turmoil in gaming fandom last year, I found this to be a refreshing and welcome development in the evolution of the series and I hope it becomes a new standard for Bioware in future projects.


 

Katriel Page

#3: Influent

Influent was partly funded through Kickstarter and partly through a MEXT grant (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology in Japan). It's a language learning game that helps you learn everyday vocabulary: you collect items such as a poster, or laundry basket, and click on them to hear/see what the word is. The more items you collect, the more words you unlock, and you can unlock quizzes, achievements, and more.

When I bought the game, the game user interface was available in Japanese or English: that has since expanded to English, Japanese, Russian, German, Swedish, and French.  Impressive indeed!  When you buy the game for the first time you pick a target language to learn (for example, French or Japanese), but additional language packs are available for it, including the usual suspects of Spanish, French, and German but also languages like Mandarin Chinese (which comes with support for both simplified AND traditional writing!), Russian, Latin, and Bulgarian. Fun, playful, and helpful!

 

#2: Depression Quest

This one isn't so much a game as a piece of interactive fiction, and one whose goal is stated outright: to help portray what living with depression is like. This is a difficult game to review not only because of that, but because of what happened this year surrounding it: its producer, Zoe Quinn, is a targeted victim of a long running harrassment campaign. And yet, works such as Depression Quest exist and try to help people come to terms with the severity of a misunderstood condition.

This game can be frustrating. It has left me in tears, even, once or twice, simply because the simulation hits too close to home. But I recommend it to people because of those traits: depression is not easy. It's not “being sad”. And living with it, seeking treatment, can be difficult.

Depression Quest is pay what you want (including free), with proceeds going towards suicide prevention. More information can be found at the official site.

 

#1: Elegy for a Dead World

During the Kickstarter campaign for this game, it was billed as a tool to help people write: a sort of visual writing set of exercises, meant to encourage creativity and problem-solving. And the Kickstarter succeeded: thanks to a mixture of factors (Staff Pick choice, hype, LOTS of literacy/education folk mentioning it), which goes to show that there is interest in writing, even if people might not know how best to spark their creativity.

Now that Elegy is available on Steam, widening its audience, I think that this game is great for people who need a quick reminder about creativity. This is not a game you can sit down, min/max, and marathon: this is a game where you must wrestle with your own imagination and see if you can get some sort of blessing out of it. Can you write yourself something that fits what you find in the world? Can you write stories from large to small — and then go out and publish them for others to see? The game includes a publishing function as well, so I can see this being a wonderful gift game that encourages interaction. It's also a must if you are interested in making your own games, as this helps you take the first step into narrative building.


 

That's it for our video game staff picks for 2014! Keep your eyes on the blog in the coming days for our manga and anime picks.

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Laughing at Innocents (Mai Mai Miracle)

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Breaking the ice is never easy, especially when part of the mob responsible for the oft cruel childhood friendship initiation ritual of teasing tries to suddenly reverse gears with extended hands and kind words. But no matter the age, according to Mai Mai Miracle, nothing’s better for loosening tension and opening hearts than the introduction and subsequent consumption of Good Ol’ Alcohol!

Third-grader Shinko, her little sister Mitsuko, and new friend and classmate Kiiko introducing their livers to the concept of failure, unlike the fun found in Panda-kun’s external corruption, is a humor of pure reflection. Many kids have an early encounter with the then foul-tasting elixir of life which their parents tout as pure ambrosia. And be it by accident, the child’s own curiosity, or parental insistence, the resulting “YUCK” is almost universal. What makes this particular moment in drinking so great is that the kids, forsaking their own taste buds, soldier on and begin acting like drunken adults.

Sweetness dulls the sense of taste, so it’s no wonder these youngsters keep unwrapping bottle after tiny bottle of liquor-filled chocolate. Kiiko heists this gift from her father’s desk but “doesn’t know” there’s alcohol inside. But when the three tasters find out, that fact certainly doesn’t stop them! Even the youngest, Mitsuko, begins to enjoy the flavor, and all three start to enjoy each other’s company.

With their inhibitions unbound, the three very quickly loose their lips and start sharing personal stories that would never be told otherwise, say a secret about one of their mothers lying about being single, and overreacting to everything. (The traumatic description of a fatal case of pneumonia ironically sends the room into hysterics.) And that’s where Shinko’s mother and grandparents find the little drunks: sprawled out on the floor, gasping for breath from alcohol-induced laughter. But the moment doesn’t end there. Oh no.

This is a moment of reflection, so it only stands to reason that, upon seeing their tiny relatives (and their friend) in a state of intoxication, worry ensues. And it does … momentarily. That which was consumed, after all, were but drops of alcohol inside a much larger dose of sugary chocolate. As they stare down in disbelief, perhaps remembering their own first encounter with the sauce, Shinko’s mom and grandfather clink the last two remaining chocolate bottles and toast the hilarity.


Mai Mai Miracle, despite the silliness of this column's particular focus, is spectacular. If you missed out on the Kickstarter, jump on any chance that presents itself to watch this movie (preferably via purchase).

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